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Ashcroft Terrorism Warning Sparks Debate Among US Experts - 2001-10-30

Attorney General John Ashcroft's latest warning of the possibility of more terrorist attacks has sparked debate over the wisdom of issuing public alerts that some experts contend do more harm than good.

The warning from Attorney General Ashcroft was simple, and yet at the same time left many questions unanswered.

"The administration has concluded, based on information developed, that there may be additional terrorist attacks within the United States and against United States' interests over the next week," Mr. Ashcroft said.

At the White House Tuesday, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said the administration decided it was better to go ahead with the terror warning - even though law enforcement officials offered no specifics. "It is a difficult and fine line that we walk," he said. "But I think America understands and hopefully appreciates that when there is that kind of information available to us, we just share it with America, as incomplete as it might be."

Local police departments have been urged to be on the highest alert for anything suspicious. But Detroit's police chief, Charles Wilson, told ABC television that generic warnings from Washington often push the public close to panic. "So, it gets to be pretty challenging and again, the information that needs to get to the public, it needs to be more specific," chief Wilson said.

Current and former law enforcement officials are divided on the question of whether the general terror warnings are worthwhile.

Christopher Whitcomb, a former FBI agent who specialized in counter-terrorism, told NBC television that federal officials need to do a better job of communicating the nature of the threat to the American people. "It is important to note that the FBI and Justice Department do investigations very well, and have for a long time. But they may not understand, now, the effect this is having on the country," he said. "People I talk to everywhere, people you talk to you, I am sure, are very, very frightened by this and do not really know how to react. So I think this part of this war we are fighting is message, part of it is giving people a sense of what is going on without alarming them."

Other experts contend that the terror warnings may also be intended for the terrorists themselves, a message that the government is aware of what they are up to.

In addition to the terror warning, administration officials are also putting out a seemingly contradictory message of urging Americans to go about their lives in a normal way.

But many experts say that may be the only way to handle the extraordinary situation that has developed since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Gregg McCrary studies criminal behavior for a living. He was interviewed on CBS television. "Well, they want to terrorize the country, there is no doubt about that. And if we let them do that, then they win," he said. "We certainly need to be aware of the risks, but we need to put them in the proper perspective and as long as we do that then they have not won."

A new poll conducted by The New York Times and CBS News indicates that a growing number of Americans expect another terrorist attack on the United States in the near future. The percentage of those surveyed who believe another attack is very likely jumped from 36 percent in a poll four weeks ago to 53 percent.